What is Digital Abuse?

By Amy Thomson

For many, technology has become an indispensable blessing in everyday life. Technology is a force that bridges gaps, maintains connections, and makes life safer and healthier. It allows countless people to stay in touch with family or friends around the world, provides social communities and support groups that may not exist locally, and makes information more accessible than ever before.

However, this power to connect also has a dark side. Just as people can connect and share with an increasingly large audience, abusers exploit it to monitor, control, shame, and intimidate their victims. This is at the core of digital abuse, and any technological device can be used. While some might discount this as minor, this form of abuse can cause profound damage to the victim’s life beyond the fear and emotional distress.

Key Types of Digital Abuse

StalkingAccording to the US Department of Justice, stalking is a pattern of behavior where “unwanted attention, harassment, contact, or conduct causes a reasonable person to feel fear.” Technology-assisted stalking involves the use of smartphones, GPS, social media, video/audio recording or other devices to monitor, intimidate, and control the victim.

Relentless Texting/Calling – Abusers restrict their victims’ ability to interact with others or go out much by bombarding them with endless calls or texts and demanding communication. Often, a victim has to answer the phone on the first call or immediately read and respond to texts (including requests for pictures to prove where they are) or risk being punished.

Monitoring/Control Over Social Media and Communications – Abusers often require their victims to provide total access to all forms of their communications with others. It is not uncommon for an abuser to bar their victim from having social media accounts, but if they do, abusers often demand passwords to access direct messages and review their activity and friends lists. An abuser may also force their victim to give them access to their email and read all incoming and outgoing messages, archive folders, and contacts.

Further, some abusers also control usage of landlines and mobile phones. They frequently screen the victim’s calls, listen to voicemails, and read all texts. To make sure their victims are not hiding anything, they also can audit all calls and texts on the victim’s phone against the tracking list on the online account history. Discovering any call/text records have been deleted may prompt punishment.

Video/Audio Recording – Regardless of whether or not the victim has granted permission to be recorded or photographed, the abuser can use images, video, and audio as a way to control or punish their victim. Such recordings can also be used as leverage to shame the victim into giving into an abuser’s demands to prevent them from sharing the files with others.

Revenge Porn – It is a couple’s right if they choose to record or photograph intimate acts, but it is not without peril. Doing so requires each partner have explicit trust that each partner will not violate the other by sharing the images with anyone else. However, it is not uncommon for victims to either be coerced or manipulated into doing so, and some may have no idea at all that they were being recorded.

Some partners exhibiting toxic patterns of behavior might post intimate images of someone online to get back at them during a bad break up. In cases of domestic violence, an abuser may share such images with others without their partner’s knowledge during the relationship as a way to punish or humiliate them while other abusers might threaten their partner to do so if the partner does not give in to their demands. After a victim leaves an abuser, the abuser will send threatening messages telling their victim they have already done so. Regardless of the context in which this occurs, it is an abusive, calculated behavior used as a way to cause profound humiliation and shame.

Ways to Protect Yourself

  • Avoid using old computers or phones, because the abuser may have installed applications allowing them to track you. Spyware removal software is available to scan and remove, but you may have to pay.
  • Disable or remove any geolocation apps. When downloading new (or re-installing old) apps, carefully read what permissions are required for each app. Avoid those requiring any type of administrative access.
  • Change all passwords and PINs immediately to help decrease the risk of breach to your voicemail or accounts (personal or financial).
  • Create new email accounts separating communicating with friends and family from financial accounts.
  • If you have existing social media accounts, change your password and privacy/security settings to control who sees your posts and who can contact you. Clean up friends or contacts that know your abuser, and block profiles of anyone that might feed information to them. Be careful only to accept friend requests from those you know and trust.
  • When posting photos or status updates online, disable the location feature and avoid tagging where you are as this helps abusers monitor your patterns of movement.
  • If you have your abuser listed as a contact with any medical, financial, and childcare center, contact them immediately and notify them the abuser no longer is allowed access. Medical and financial organizations usually require updated release forms, and childcare may not be able to block all access in cases of co-parenting.
  • Notify friends, family, and co-workers that they are not to provide information about you, your whereabouts, or schedule to your abuser.


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